Suspend Your Disbelief

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The "Nice" Review

Are book reviews useful if they’re… well, nice? Two of the biggest names in reviewing, Janet Maslin and Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, are known for delivering smarting critiques of the titles that cross their desks. Kakutani is so infamously harsh that an essay on The Millions came up with a term for her brand of criticism: the Kakutani two-step.

But some book reviewers take a different tack. Author Ben Winters explained why he gives everything five stars on sites like Goodreads:

The problem isn’t that “amateurs” are doing the reviewing: the opinions of regular old readers or playgoers or whoever can be just as valuable, and usually more passionate and interesting, than those of the jaded professionals. But in a world where Amazon sells everything from books to lightbulbs, then asks the consumer to rank his purchase from zero to five, I worry that we start to forget that a book is different than a box of lightbulbs — for the simple, cheesy reason that it emerged from the soul of a human being, and not from a light-bulb factory.

And Nina Sankovitch, of Read All Day fame—whose reviews earned her attention from the New York Times, CNN, and other media outlets, as well as a book deal of her own—explains why her reviews always seem so nice:

Now that I am reading one or two books a week, I don’t review everything I read. I write reviews of what I’ve liked. I don’t write good reviews: I write reviews of good books. […]

If I were being paid to review a set list of books or being held hostage to reviews (“Review Swamplandia! by tonight or no soup for you!”), I would write more negative or mixed reviews (“the writing in Swamplandia! is gorgeous but the point of the story gets lost in the acres of saw grass and the hugely yawning gape of Leviathan”: soup please?). But I am not being paid and I am hostage only to my own book addiction. And so I pass on recommendations of great books.

Here at FWR, we have a similar philosophy. In reviewing books by debut and emerging authors, our goal is to highlight books that are worth reading. Sure, we may have criticisms of what we read, but on the whole, if we review it, we think it’s worth bringing to your attention.

So can “nice” reviews still be useful? We think so.

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